20 years after Kurt Cobain died, what changed and what didn’t
Twenty years ago Saturday, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain shot himself. In the intervening years, his contemporaries have changed, Seattle has changed and music has changed. But he still holds sway.
Tom Reese / The Seattle Times, 1994
Seattle Times staff columnist
“All we knew is that something had happened,” Tom Reese said recently of that overcast morning. “The police were there, and they thought there was someone dead inside the house.”
A Seattle Times photographer, Reese was sent on that April day in 1994 to the tony Denny Blaine neighborhood, where there had been a report of a body.
There was already a crowd under the overcast morning skies outside the house, a 7,000-square-foot timber-shingled beauty built at the turn of the century.
Reese found a tree on a hillside adjacent to the house, climbed up to a lower branch and started shooting. A police officer standing outside. Investigators walking in and out of a room above the garage. Inside was a supine figure in a stained shirt, jeans and black Converse sneakers tied with a tight bow. The right wrist bore a hospital bracelet with the name of doctor David Murphy. A few feet away, an open cigar box held a kit for injecting heroin. A bag containing a box of 20-gauge shotgun shells rested by the left foot.
It was Kurt Cobain.
The news, and the disbelief, raced through the Seattle music community, then the wider world.
Marty Riemer, a DJ at KXRX at the time, announced over the radio that Seattle Police had been dispatched to the home owned by Cobain, in response to a report of a suicide. The phones lit up.
“We were stunned at how many calls we were getting from far-off places,” he remembered recently. “It was a little frightening for us to be in the eye of the storm.”
That night, those who knew Cobain holed up at Linda’s Tavern, opened a few months earlier by Linda Derschang and bankrolled by Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt, the founders of Sub Pop Records who had signed Nirvana.
“There was no Facebook or social media back then,” Derschang recalled recently. “But somehow, people just knew that that’s where we could go to mourn together, to try to make sense of what happened.
“It was so emotional and so surreal.”
The jukebox was silent. So, mostly, was the crowd.
“We didn’t know how to mourn,” said John Roderick, frontman of the Long Winters, who was there that night.
Just a few nights before, Cobain had come in with a friend and had a beer in the booth at the top of the stairs. It was the last place he was seen alive. Police believe Cobain shot himself April 5, 1994. His body was found April 8.
Two days after the news broke, some 7,000 people gathered at Seattle Center to mourn, and listen as a recording of Courtney Love — tearfully and angrily sharing his suicide note — was played over the PA system.
Another Seattle moment
For most of the 90s, Cobain and Nirvana had helped identify Seattle in the American imagination. The obligatory flannel shirts, the angst under overcast skies, the punk-inspired rage.
Twenty years later, Seattle is having another moment. But the sullen image has given way to the smooth smile of Amazon, the quotable rogues of the Super Bowl Champion Seahawks, and Macklemore’s staccato success. Positivity is the order of the day.
But despite the remove, the so-called grunge years still hold considerable sway.
Responding to media attention over the upcoming anniversary, the Seattle Police Department reviewed the Cobain case file recently, developed four rolls of 20-year-old film and released a couple of new shots.
“The film is just different angles of stuff we already had,” Seattle Police Detective Mike Ciesynski told the dozen or so reporters who gathered at police headquarters. “You’re going to be underwhelmed.”
We were, but even so, this “news” received worldwide coverage. CNN. BBC. The Huffington Post. Billboard. Gawker. Le Monde. CBS News ran a Cobain segment the next morning.
But the people closest to it all — friends who knew Cobain, or the band, those who worked at Sub Pop then, and still do — don’t want to talk about any of it. They long ago spoke their piece to reporters and magazine writers, book authors and most important, one another.
“I think people would be happier remembering their first Nirvana show,” said Kerri Harrop, who ran Sub Pop’s Mega Mart during the Nirvana period and is now the Music Community Fundraising Manager at KEXP. “Oftentimes there are these huge stretches to attach significance to these cultural events, other than the people who were directly involved.
“I don’t think it changed anything in Seattle,” she said, “other than a young death of someone in your peer group changes you at that age.”
At some point, you just want to move on.
And largely, they have.
Cobain’s rock ‘n’ roll peers — who played everywhere from the Ditto to the Off-Ramp to Wembley Stadium — are now grown, shorn and going gray. Some have abandoned the life of the load-in and sound check and found different ways to make money and a name. They’ve gotten married, gotten divorced. Had children and bought cars. Looked at private schools and saved for college.
Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl founded the platinum-selling Foo Fighters, and towering bassist Krist Novoselic found his voice in political activism.
But none of that happened to Kurt Cobain. He is still back there — unplugged on MTV, before iTunes and Spotify — in that room.
“It was war”
Love demolished the garage and sold the Denny Blaine house in 1997 for $2.8 million — twice what she and Cobain paid for it three years prior. She moved to Los Angeles and spent years bickering with Grohl and Novoselic over rights and royalties. In the meantime, she was nominated for a Golden Globe Award and became an object of scorn here. Most of her visits to Seattle were to the law offices of Perkins Coie and Preston Gates.
“I don’t like coming to Seattle much,” Love said last summer, in advance of a show at The Moore Theatre. “It is beautiful, objectively. The arboretum is great. But it freaks me out for obvious reasons ... It was war, the time after Kurt died.”
His daughter, Frances Bean, just 18 months old when her father died, is now an adult and has a house of her own, in Hollywood, for which she paid $1.8 million.
Cobain was indirectly nominated for Best Rap Song at this year’s Grammy Awards; nominee Jay Z’s “Holy Grail” borrowed lyrics from “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which Cobain wrote with Grohl and Novoselic.
The winner in the category? Seattle’s hometown wonder, Macklemore. He bought his own million-dollar house, but his is on Capitol Hill, blocks from Linda’s, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary and has become a seasoned, landmark dive. Derschang herself has a pied-à-terre in New York City, and a solar system of restaurants, the most recent, Tallulah’s, named for her grown daughter.
The dingy clubs and rocker haunts are being torn down and turned into apartments for tech workers. A pizza joint — or rather the land it occupies — sold for $10 million last week. Starbucks, which started in Pike Place Market, is now brewing coffee in China.
Courtney Love told the New Music Express that she wants to make a musical of Cobain’s life. And Sub Pop is opening a store at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, not far from Ivar’s and the Made in Washington store, where the tourists roam.
Seattle may not have changed because Kurt Cobain shot himself, but it has changed.
And yet, the 27-year-old Aberdeen native — dwindled to just 138 pounds when he died — still has the power to pull us back to the raging riffs that fell to softness. To those blue eyes. And to that awful day above his lakeside garage.
Nicole Brodeur: firstname.lastname@example.org
Due to an editing error, this article originally stated Courtney Love was nominated for an Academy Award. Love was nominated for a Golden Globe Award. Also, Wembley Stadium was misspelled.